April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Taking it one small smile at a time

When I imagined Peace Corps, and what it would be like, the images in my mind fell into two catagories:

The Challenges - including, but not limited to: bugs, language, diarrea, strange food that still has hair on it, bugs, distance from family, crowded buses, hard physical work. All of those imaginings have been true to some extent, fortunately not all at the same moment (although I can imagine a possible senario that involves them all!)

(Caption: April carrying two twelve-foot-long, five-inch-wide, bamboo logs, a mile from the bamboo groove to the shore)

The "Peace Corps" Moments - including: walking along wooded paths in an exotic place while comfortably speaking the native language with a local friend; a spontaneous hug from a local child; being really dirty, tired, and happy after a day of working on a subsistance farm; being greeted with a phrase I taught in English class; watching someone try out a new skill that I taught them. PC moments also include the moments that, while not altogether positive, are moments that you just could have never imagined you would expereince...and never outside PC.

I have found that the reality of Peace Corps is peppered with a mix of these moments, of course. What I didn't realize was just how powerful the "Peace Corps" moments would be....and that I would have to remember to look for and celebrate them. At times these moments are the only indications that we have of success, and they help us to keep on working and planning for the future.

So, I want to share a couple of "Peace Corps Moments" that have helped us to stay energized and focused.

Bread Boy

We did environmental activities two days a week throughout February with the older kids during school vacation. For one day's discussion about the economy of buying larger sizes of common products both from a money and a trash point of view, we baked bread (mini rolls with herbs really), using the time for the dough to rise to do the math on what sizes to buy. That day we had 5 boys and one girl. Well, boys don´t cook in Panama...so when we announced what we were doing to the group, all heads swiveled immediately to her. She had never baked anything either so that wasn´t going to be the saving grace they hoped for.

(Caption: Both teams at the stove, wrangling their ingredients; Julian, Bread Boy, is in the white Tshirt at the far end)

We posted the recipe on the wall and formed two teams. They proceeded to make the dough with some minimal guidance. Well, of the two teams' efforts, one rose nicely (taste tests indicated that the other had way too much salt). They baked nicely and were all consumed (even the hard salty bread rocks).

Making bread was fun, but what has really made this a PC moment was that one of the boys came over later the same day and asked to borrow some of the ingredients to make some at his house. I went over a little later to check on him and he was making bread surrounded by relatives (giving him some grief about his efforts). He did fine. I thought that it was pretty brave of him to try it out at home despite cultural norms and the number of extended family who where around to tease him. He has since baked bread 2 other times, each time bring over a peice to share and get advice from me for next time.
(Captions: Members of one team kneading their ingredients, which included too much salt)

One day Kevin and I were walking the shore to a friend´s house (about a 1 1/2 hour walk), stopping and talking with other people along the way. One spot we stopped and talked with a woman and her visiting adult children for 5 minutes and then moved on because of the hot sun. As we walked away we overheard her start to explain to her visiting daughters what was an Estufa Lorena. We had talked to her a couple of times about estufas. Wow, it felt good to hear her start to talk about it with real knowledge to another person (with no help or prompting from us). She wasn't talking to impress us, just to share information that she knew. It felt good to get some solid proof that someone has absorbed some new information and is thinking about it.

Full Moon Moment

I hope that everyone got to see the recent lunar eclipse. Kevin and I almost missed it just from not knowning it was coming (we hadn't been listening to the radio). Fortunately we talked with relatives that night and they alerted us. We ended up spending a couple of hours sitting up with the neighbor boys watching and photographing the eclipse. What made it a real PC moment was getting to explain to them, with fists and flashlights, what was happening. Yes, you can do that in the states too...but the difference is that in the states they could go inside and learn it on TV or the internet. Not only are those not possible in my community, but it is likely that their parents don't know what was really happening...and possible that their teacher doesn't know as well. (It is also easier to sit outside for hours on a February night.)

(Caption: A mostly eclipsed view of the moon from Panamá)

Little books, Big steps
I knew that people in our community would be interested in us, but I didn't realize that that would mean random children showing up at random times to sit and stare at me and not respond to questions I ask. Sometimes they sit and stare for more than an hour. It can kind of drive me crazy. One day I wanted nothing more than to keep reading...not interact with a kid who may or may not respond. So I went into the house and got out a small kids book written in Spanish we had purchased to practice, handed it to her, and then went back to my reading. It worked...she read it and didn´t stare for a while.

(Caption: Now her younger sister is reading the books, and sometimes we get them to read to the younger kids too)

The next day that she came over I did the same thing with another book. Again she read it. I kept giving her one small book a day until she had read them all. Then I gave her a small chapter book...she seem daunted by its size. Next thing I knew she was chuckling to herself over the story. Three days later she had read the whole book.

I am starting to hand the books to other kids now and I am thinking of doing an after-school story hour just to encouage literacy. Pleasure reading is not common in Panama as books are very expensive. I will buy more books while out in town, but only 3-4 of them because of the price. Bookstores and libraries are not very common, there is only one of each in Santiago.

We hope we continue to have these little moments throughout our service; they are definately what we will remember years from now as our true Peace Corps impact.


Linda said...

oh, April, you just inspired me...

I have an idea, and it involves the used book store, shipping, and a long wait, but books going to Panama.

NIA said...

You have some great stories and inspring posts. My Spanish class read through them yesterday. We sent your class a package earlier this week so we hope it arrives safely. Keep doing good things over there! Nia Vestal